As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 18 Winter 2021 – Women in the Music Industry
Now that we’ve heard from Dr. Jacobs, let’s talk about steps we can take to build strong wrists.
Hi, my name is Angela McCuiston, and I specialize in fitness for musicians. As a musician myself, I’ve been injured four times from playing my instrument and got sick of hearing doctors, who don’t understand musicians, tell me I should “just quit playing.” So I fused my love of fitness and music and founded my business Music Strong. I’m a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, and strength and injury prevention among musicians is my jam!
How many times have you been on stage and felt that “ache” that goes from occasional to frequent? Pretty soon, you find yourself having to alter your playing style, your posture, your setlist, or maybe even talking more between songs in search of rest.
Hopefully, this isn’t you, but don’t be surprised if you just felt seen. Up to 93% of musicians will experience playing-related pain or injury, so despite the silence of the musicians around you, you’re far from alone.
The good news?
You CAN do something about it.
In today’s article, I’m going to show you the best ways to keep your wrists pain-free so you can keep rocking as long as you want to!
Pain in the wrist can show up for several different reasons: sometimes it can be related to stress or excess tension, such as holding down the strings harder than necessary. It can be positional or just from sheer overuse.
Frequently, the site of pain is not the source of pain. Which begs the question…
IS IT CARPAL TUNNEL?
Firstly, everyone has a carpal tunnel—what we mean is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, and it is a favorite scary buzzword among musicians. I have talked to two well-known health professionals about this issue. Both are A.R.T. practitioners (active release technique), with one of them familiar with musicians’ injuries (see Preston Wakefield’s interview in Working Drummer). I asked them about their experiences, and they both said, “I have never seen a true case of carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Well, that’s definitely encouraging!
But if you don’t have carpal tunnel syndrome, what’s causing the pain?
The short version of the syndrome is that the tendons passing through the carpal tunnel get inflamed, which squeezes the nerves and tendons and causes pain and/or numbness. A surgeon’s favorite solution to this is to cut the sheath surrounding the tendons to relieve the pressure. However, both of these practitioners told me something that has stuck with me:
“The muscles of the forearm extensors originate at the elbow, and as they travel southward towards the wrist, they become tendons. When the muscles are tight, they can cause the tendons to swell, this causes the tunnel to become compressed and the same tightness/pain/numbness to occur.” Thus, surgery may not be necessary. What’s needed is to decrease the swelling.
Caveat here; please don’t self-diagnose. Please see a sports medicine doctor or get an appointment at your local bone and joint clinic to get checked out. Pain should never be ignored.
So what can you do?
Start with massage. 😊
STEP 1: MASSAGE
The first step to avoiding/overcoming pain anywhere is to massage the overactive muscles. In the case of wrist pain, massage those forearms! Press on the muscles just below the elbow, looking for tender points. If you find something that “rolls” or is tender, press on it. It should hurt in a good way. On a 1-10 pain scale, you never want to be above a 7. Hold until the pain diminishes to a 1.
My favorite implement for forearm self-massage is called The Arm Aid. Used for years with rock climbers, they are now seeing great results among musicians, especially guitar players! You can check it out at musicstrong.com/arm-aid/, and if you enter code MusicStrong at checkout, you’ll get 10% off. Whatever you use, you want to do the self-massage both before and after playing.
STEP 2: STRETCH
So now that we’ve gotten that overactive muscle to chill out, we need to stretch it so it has a better chance of staying that way. There are two forearm stretches you can do.
Wrist extensors (underside of forearms)
With your hands below you on a table or the floor, extend your arms so your elbows are straight. Point your hands back towards your body and gently lower them until your palms are flat. Splay your fingers out wide, press heels of palms down, then attempt to lift the tips of your fingers off the table. This should not be possible. If you can do this, more than likely you are leaning forward. The point is not to actually lift your knuckles; it is the attempt. Hold for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, hold 30 seconds. Come out of the stretch gently and slowly.
Wrist Flexors (top of forearms)
Again keeping your hands underneath your shoulders with your elbows straight, face your fingers towards your body and lower your hands until the tops of your hands are flat. Pinch your fingers and thumbs together and try to lift your knuckles off the table. This should not be possible. If you can do this, more than likely you are leaning forward or your elbows are bent. Hold the stretch for 20 seconds, rest 10 seconds, hold 30 more seconds. Come out of the stretch gently and slowly.
(Note: if the backs of your hands or your palms will not go flat, do not force them. Take them to maximum stretch and gently hold. The more you do this stretch, the farther they will eventually go.)
STEP 3: STRENGTHEN
You know that you can’t just jump into a four-hour rehearsal out of nowhere; you have to build up your endurance. The muscles in your forearms need the same love!
Try these exercises, all for 1 set:
- Hammer rotations: slowly control it side to side until fatigue
- Rubber band extensions: 2 second hold done 10-15 times
- Ball squeezes: 5-10 reps with 2-5 second holds
- Wrist curls 10-20 reps, 2 count up, 2 count hold, 2 count down
To preview a 1-minute video that shows all of these, visit my YouTube channel.
STEP 4: INTEGRATE
Shoulder stability can be a huge factor in arm issues. We’ll get more into this in subsequent articles, but remember, you don’t just play guitar with your fingers, you use your entire body! To tie it all together, add in something called “farmer’s walks” or “farmer’s carry.” This entails picking up some heavy weights, bracing your core, pulling your shoulders back, and going for a walk without swaying or dropping the weights!
Angela McCuiston, NASM-CPT, CES, SFS, M.M., is the owner of Music Strong, a business that specializes in fitness for musicians. Winner of the 2007 National Flute Association Piccolo Masterclass, she is Assistant Principal/Piccolo of Sinfonia Gulf Coast, a member of the 313th Army Band, and chair of the NFA Performance Health Committee. See her website at MusicStrong.com.
NOTE: This is not intended to be professional advice. Always seek the advice of a medical professional if in doubt.